For many years I tried to figure out why I was so easily overstimulated and slow to recover from things. As a child, a grain of sand in the bathtub would irritate me no end. When I was tired, loud noises would disturb me significantly. I connected emotionally with other people and wanted to go into counseling from a very young age. I eventually came to the conclusion though that working daily with the emotionally distressed would wear me down too quickly. I also was highly distractable and in attentive in school. In a college psychology class, I concluded I had “over active dendrites.” My nervous system was obviously more sensitive than average. When I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in my early 20s, I was certain that there was a connection between my chronic pain and ADHD tendencies, but at the time I could find no information relating the two. Now if you Google the two conditions, you can find that I’m not the only one to see a connection. There is a good deal of overlap between sensitivity and neurodivergence.
The Highly Sensitive Person
When I was given a book on the highly sensitive child, I found myself seeing my own experiences in quite detail. When taking the test on Elaine Aron’s website, there is no denying that I meet the vast majority of the characteristics described. However, when I read things aimed at highly sensitive people, I don’t always connect. This is because I am not only highly sensitive, but also highly excitable.
While highly sensitive people have a finely tuned perception system and pick up things that an average person may not, a highly excitable person has a heightened ability to both perceive and respond to stimuli. The response part can make us prone to reactivity. A highly reactive person can look like the complete opposite of a highly sensitive person, even if they posses many of the traits of being highly sensitive.The concept of high excitability (or overexcitability) was introduced by Kazimierz Dabrowski, who said there are 5 types of excitabilities: intellectual, imaginational, emotional, sensual (of the senses), and psychomotor (physical movement). The excitabilities most often associated with the highly sensitive are emotional and sensual. Those with psychomotor excitability probably look the least typical of HSPs.
Misconceptions About HSPs
I believe part of the challenge I have with much of the literature out there on Highly Sensitive People, is that they often associate characteristics that many HSPs develop to protect their highly sensitive traits as traits of being an HSP in and of themselves. Here are some commonly believed misconceptions about HSPs:
All HSPs are introverted.
This is the most commonly discussed assumption. Since HSPs are easily overstimulated and highly empathetic, it is understandable that most would need a lot of alone time to recover. It is estimated that 70-75% of HSPs are introverted, so it is true to say that the majority are. However, for the other 25-30% of us, there is often a challenge between getting adequate down time and also getting enough socialization. I myself fit the definition of an extrovert to a T. I am actually drained by too much alone time and energized by positive social interactions. So for me, it’s more a matter of avoiding draining social interactions with negative people than avoiding interactions all together.
HSPs avoid high stimulation.
Again, it would make sense that if your easily overstimulated you would avoid excess stimulation. There is a small subset of the HSP population who are also high sensation seekers (HSS). If you are an HSS, you thrive on novel situations. This might involve some degree of risk taking, but mostly it means you enjoy variety. My intellectual excitability helps me to enjoy novelty and challenge. I have learned that some routines are necessary to function well in day to day living, but routine is not something that comes naturally to me. I am often restless and fear missing out on things. This makes it difficult to take the time I need for more solitary things I know I need to recoup.
All HSPs are never impulsive.
One of the things often noted about HSPs is that they have a strong “pause to check” characteristic. In one article I remember reading about sensation seeking HSPs, they noted that the opposite of highly sensitive was not high sensation seeking, but impulsivity instead. I highly disagree with this notion. I believe that the opposite of highly sensitive is a low level of perception, or high level of screening out sensory information. Having many ADHD type traits myself including psychomotor excitability, I can often speak impulsively or do things without thinking. Though I do believe my sensitivity makes me more cautious than I would be otherwise.
If you are highly sensitive, you must be fragile.
This is also true of what many think of people with Fibromyalgia. I am here to tell you that it is BS. Having been through natural childbirth, I can tell you with all certainty that, while I have a very low pain threshold, I have an extremely high pain tolerance. This means that little things make me uncomfortable, and feel painful quickly, but I can deal with a very large level of pain. As a child, I learned to tune things out, or things would bother me way too much. As I lost touch with my body, it screamed back at me through chronic pain. I’ve been working for 15 years or so to connect with my body signals, and only in the last few years have I really had much success with it.
We are all unique
These are just examples from my own life of how I see sensitivity and excitabiity at play. Everyone is different and there is no one size fits all approach. We each have our own unique powers that make us who we are. If you think you might be highly sensitive or excitable, you can get my free Harnessing the Power of Your Intensity Workbook and use your strengths to do great things!